These are some photos from this afternoon’s protest at Mashdots Park in Yerevan. The area was chaotic — on the far end of the park there was a backhoe digging up the sidewalk, making a tremendous amount of noise and polluting the air with exhaust fumes and dust. Today a group of about 10 people wearing yellow hard-hats, tools in hand, decided to show up in the hopes of dismantling the rows of kiosks. There were dozens of police on hand to face the peaceful protesters, even some in full riot gear which I thought was over the top. A news site called Asparez was streaming video of the protest live.
I couldn’t help thinking how absurd this whole affair is. The Yerevan municipality decided to contradict its very own law that it put into force last year banning these kiosks from existing on sidewalks in the first place. Then these activists keep returning day after day hoping to somehow take the park back on behalf of the public. In the meantime, none of the political parties are taking advantage of the opportunity to win votes in the coming parliamentary elections by lending their support. The confrontations with the police are a bit pointless because they’re just doing their jobs — defending the position of the authorities. The protesters should realistically be taking up their beef with the city mayor and the Prime Minister, both of whom continue to be inconspicuously absent at each of these events. If you want to legitimately address the concerns of your citizens, go talk to them in person, not in press conferences or through police captains. Apparently, they have better things to do on a Saturday afternoon.
I know one thing — so long as the protests keep moving forward and continue gaining support from fringe groups like these hard-hat wearing dudes, the authorities will have no choice but to cave. It’s just a matter of time.
Here’s a photo of my revolutionary family who are there almost every day — mom and baby, courtesy of News.am.
Today my wife Anushik attended a protest held opposing the plans for a massive copper mining project. It was held in front of the Government Building on Republic Square in late morning, then the protesters marched to the Presidential Palace. I covered the controversy surrounding this project in my two previous posts, so read them for more details.
An estimated 608 hectares of precious land in Syunik is slated to be turned into a massive open mining pit so that a handful of government officials can make countless millions at the expense of Armenia’s long-term environmental sustainability. But not if these activists can help it.
This video depicts a confrontation between environmental activists and Syunik governor Surik Khachatryan in Kajaran (the video is in Armenian).
Basically they are saying what I wrote in my previous post, emphasizing that the extracted copper and the profits associated with its sale on the market will go to Germany, where the parent mining company is based, and that the Armenia economy as well as the countless village inhabitants that will be displaced, won’t reap any benefit from the mining.
The woman wearing the hat is the maverick Mariam Sukhudyan, but unfortunately I cannot identify the man in the camouflage jacket. Mariam is certainly an inspirational woman and she is the single most effective spokesman for badly needed change in this country — change in the mindset and the corrupted values fostered by so many politicians here.
Towards the end of the video he called her a dragonfly and purportedly said that something “bad” would happen to her if she continued her protest (it was not audible but appeared in print).
Her continued efforts (as well as those of her teammates) will undoubtedly spark a fire in the hearts of many Armenians to stand up for themselves. It’s just a question of when.
One thing is certain for many people not just in Syunik but in the minds of many here in Yerevan — this guy has to go and this project must be stopped. He can barely defend himself and can’t even speak proper Armenian. Being born in the States I was not educated in Armenia and mostly self-taught in the language, yet it seems I can speak better Armenian than he can. The video is testament to how utterly uneducated Khachatryan and undoubedly many other people in government are.
Kudos to these brave activists. May their crucial work continue unabated.
Reading yesterday’s headlines I came across a major news story of a Kajaran mayor in Syunik, Rafik Atayan, resigning from his position and from the Republican party in protest to the government’s decision to confiscate 181 hectares of land in the area. The land will be turned over to the German-owned mining company, Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum Combine (ZCMC). The lands will become an “open-pit mine,” meaning that all the dust created in the excavation process will drift and pollute the surrounding areas. Water supplies and agricultural lands will be ruined as well. The Armenian MP living the village, a former executive of the mining company, is obstinately indifferent.
The mayor’s protest is admirable but will ultimately prove nothing since his replacement will obligatorily sign the paperwork formalizing the new mining initiative.
Land has already been given to the Chinese in Syunik in a different government-backed plan, ironically nit to far from Tatev, which was anticipated to be Armenia’s top tourist attraction when it opened just over a year ago. There are still other controversial projects that are stalled or about to get underway in Teghut and Hrazdan.
The justification for opening the mine (and others) is the following, quoted from an article published by RFE/RL:
The German group [Cronimet, the parent company] insisted that the planned expansion of the ZCMC’s mining operations stems from “a number of agreements” with the Armenian government. That will also boost Armenian exports and “economic stability in the country, it said.
These types of statements have become totally laughable and even insulting. The monthly minimum wage in Armenia is absurdly low at 32,500 dram ($83) and a bill introduced by the ARF last month to nearly double it was shot down by the Republican controlled National Assembly. In other words, most people in Armenia — factory or mining workers being no exception — live hand to mouth. Most people can’t save up and have little or no pocket money to spend to benefit the economy. ZCMC prides itself as supposedly being the top tax paying corporate institution in Armenia (untold sums of collected taxes are, in turn, eaten), but that doesn’t mean government officials will not reap the benefits of kickbacks from profits. The money made in this deal (and others) will not be vested in the Armenian economy realistically simply because it will end up in several peoples’ pockets and foreign bank accounts instead at the expense of Armenia’s fragile environment. That’s the way things work in capitalist Armenia.
So let’s stop kidding ourselves that high exports in metals are good for the economy. When rural areas are still underdeveloped in and around Armenia, with some new settlements in Armenian-controlled territories doing without roads, running water and electricity as I wrote in a previous post, these statements from government officials are paradoxical. Mining businesses benefit the elite, while the rest of the country’s potential along with its ecological longevity suffer.
Yesterday an article was published by RFE/RL confirming that a controversial plan to exploit gold mines near Lake Sevan’s shores was going ahead as planned. And supposedly the government is uninformed about it.
Villagers in the area are rightly up in arms about it since Lake Sevan has already been jeopardized by toxic waste flowing in from polluted rivers. The environmental threat could get a lot worse if this Russian mining company, GeoProMining, continues forward with its profit-seeking ventures damning the future of Armenian ecology in the wake of its efforts.
The area around Sotk has substantial gold deposits that are controlled by an Armenian subsidiary of the Russian industrial group GeoProMining. The company called GPM Gold started building an ore crusher there in February. About two dozen workers could be seen at the construction site on Tuesday.
Environmentalists accuse GPM Gold of violating an Armenian law that bans any manufacturing activity in the vicinity of Sevan that involves toxic emissions. They also say that work on the facility got underway without a mandatory authorization from the Armenian Ministry of Environment Protection.
Such an authorization can be obtained only as a result of an impact assessment conducted by ministry experts. A ministry spokesman, Artsrun Pepanian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that GPM Gold never asked the ministry to gauge environmental consequences of ore-crushing operations at Sotk.
Last November, the Armenian parliament’s Audit Chamber urged the government to revoke the company’s operating licenses for what it called mismanagement and serious legal violations. GeoProMining rejected the accusations and said it will take the parliamentary body to court.
The Armenian government has yet to respond to the recommendation made by the Audit Chamber. The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Wednesday that it is still looking into the chamber’s arguments.
Hetq has written extensively about the environmental risks facing Lake Sevan and its environs as well as in other regions of Armenia. Unfortunately Hetq’s archive section is under development after the relaunch of the web site, but I did manage to find some cached articles when doing a search. Below is a segment written by Astghik Khachatryan from April 2009:
Simon Papayan, Deputy Minister for Nature Protection, stated to the participants that his office has never received any official correspondence from GeoProMining. He added that, “Article 10 of the “Lake Sevan Law” prohibits such operations at the Sevan basin and we are guided by this law. In the past, such a petition was made when the mine belonged to the Indians but we denied their request.”
When asked by “Hetq” what then was reviewed at the March 2 meeting, Mr. Papayan responded, “There was no review meeting. There was a reception where the company presented its vision of how to operate the mine site.”
So in terms of lack of communication, nothing has changed in two years at all. The government still turns a blind eye to what’s going on in Sotk.
We’re talking about Lake Sevan here, the pride and joy of Armenia, one of the most revered vacation spots in the country. Lake Sevan is legendary all over the world, and thousands of Armenians in the diaspora who have yet to visit Armenia, including my brother who was named in honor of that natural wonder, only dream of seeing it. Now the government is standing idly by as the lake faces total destruction. Fish supplies have already dwindled and some subspecies have even gone extinct due to overfishing.
Here’s an excerpt from a follow-up article written by the same reporter in June 2009:
At a press conference held today Boris Gabrielyan, Director of Institute of Hydro-Ecology and Ichthyology of the National Academy of Sciences stated that Lake Sevan no longer has viable fish stocks for commercial use.
He said that besides a fish locally called “karas”, an undesirable species that competes with others for food and habitat, there are few other native species that reproduce naturally.
Mr. Gabrielyan said that two subspecies of Lake Sevan “ishkhan” fish has disappeared all together.
He pointed to the fact that this wasn’t the case 100, 50 or even as late as 10 years ago.
“The government is allocating funds to restock certain species with 3 year-old fingerlings. But their efforts are mostly in vain since much of the restocked fish, once they reach adulthood, are illegally being trapped and fished for commercial purposes. There is no adequate oversight,” Mr. Gabrielyan argued.
Referring to plans by GeoProMining to build a processing plant for Sotk gold on the shores of Lake Sevan, Mr. Gabrielyan said that their studies of the matter or continuing but that they hadn’t given a green light for the project.
So there you have it. No oversight by the government while Armenian businessmen do whatever they want at the expense of the livelihood of rural citizens barely getting by to earn a living, not to mention irreversible environmental damage. Some people are giving polluted water to their cattle due to the reckless dumping of toxic waste. And no one in the government seems to care. The recklessness goes on unabated. No one in politics seems to be complaining about it–either in pro-government or opposition camps. Once word gets out that the operations indeed go forward as planned tourism to Sevan will taper off. And the reason for this catastrophe is the same story: “The country’s not a country.” When does it start to become one?